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REALITY BITES (AND CONNECTS)


2017 presented music lovers with a variety of unexpected game-changers. Whether the following albums were unexpected because they served as their creators’ breakouts or showed fans a new side of their idols, these pieces of art each served up real moments. I’m talking about the sets that made people pause, rewind, play—the conversation-starters and converters of the skeptical. There’s so much white noise to cut through as it becomes increasingly hard to break artists. Today’s listeners have to wade through a tidal wave of homogenized dribble on a stultifyingly regular basis, so their ears have been forced to adapt. They can now sniff out legitimacy like a bloodhound. Consequently, real shit is rising to the top.

RCA brought us a trio of champions this year. Khalid’s debut full-length was honest and self-aware (a word not typically associated with millennials). In a beyond-endearing manner, American Teen expresses the struggle of confronting one’s insecurities. Something similar can be said for TDE deity SZACtrl wasn’t the world’s first taste of her music, but it definitely signified her grand entrance. It’s a coming-of-age endeavor that triumphantly explores the power of womanhood. That brings us to Kesha, whose Rainbow is marked by radical metamorphosis. This album may just be the modern era’s best representation of a phoenix rising—for the publicized reasons, of course, but it’s more than that. She rediscovered the rule-breaker she lost in trauma. Most of us lose sight of our inner child in the harsh face of adulthood; Kesha overcame. Calling upon the likes of Dolly Parton, The Dap-Kings and Eagles of Death Metal, she fluidly melds country, folk, soul, funk and rock influences. Kesha’s doing what she was born to do—whatever the fuck she wants. Messy and magnificent.

Def Jam’s Logic has been around for a while—at least for a 27-year-old. Everybody, his conceptual, inspirational epic, was preceded by two other albums and five mixtapes, yet a lot of people only know the rapper through the commercially successful suicide-prevention anthem “1-800-273-8255.” This song is deeply important (and catchy), but it’s just the tip of an iceberg of mind-boggling depth. On Everybody, each song is performed from a different person’s perspective, delivering a message of solidarity in diversity. If that’s not important today, I’m not sure I know what is.

Two of the year’s biggest head-turners came from Columbia’s Harry Styles and Big Machine’s Taylor Swift. Each megastar was faced with a daunting dilemma: How do I top my prior work and step out of my own looming shadow? Styles did it by making an alternately trippy and pounding ode to the most fun facets of the ’70s—glam, arena and psych—while tipping his hat to California’s Canyon sounds on the ballads. He said goodbye to his publicly crafted boyband persona with total elegance. Swift, on the other hand, had already left one vein for another, completing the transition from country to pop on 1989. In the ultra-competitive world of Top 40, how does one maintain an upward trajectory? Tay’s answer: Get them talking. By leading with the most startling and confusing tracks on her dark and sexy reputation, she brought expectations down to drive curiosity up, allowing her to initially make the release purchase-only. And ultimately, what you think about the album doesn’t matter. She followed her arrow and still became the first artist in history to top a million in first-week sales on four consecutive releases.

XXXTentacion—the most mainstream of the underdogs in this group—crafted something startlingly personal in 17, a creative fireball that is anything but predictable. Like Styles, XXX proves that being authentic is the most rock & roll thing an artist can do today. Genre is losing its meaning. Instead of trying to explain 17 at length, I suggest you listen to his brief spoken-word intro to the album, “The Explanation,” in which he breathily declares, “I put my all into this in the hopes that it will help cure or at least numb your depression.”

Sampha’s debut full-length, the exquisitely human Process, was one of the more critically acclaimed albums of the year. The soulster—signed to Young Turks of Martin Mills’ Beggars Group—has been honing his craft since 2010, making this utter triumph all the sweeter. Sampha’s Mercury Prize win, which put the album in front of even Ed Sheeran’s Divide, is well-deserved. The poetically charged electronic R&B found on songs like “Plastic 100ºC” is simultaneously inventive and familiar, while the raw simplicity of “(Know One Knows Me) Like the Piano” reveals the songwriting prowess inside him.

If Courtney Barnett was anointed as the indie-rock prom queen of 2015, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Alex Luciano of Diet Cig will follow in her footsteps. Like Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (albeit more introverted and “chill”), Diet Cig’s Swear I’m Good at This is a refreshing and intelligent pop-infused version of punk music. Glittery angst hasn’t sounded this good in a while.

As for 2018, here’s what’s on my wish list: More from Jorja Smith. The U.K. songstress, whose buttery vocals have elicited comparisons to Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill, just won the 2018 BRITS Critics’ Choice award, even though her discography lacks a proper album. Her “Fine Lines” is a clear standout on HBO’s much-applauded Insecure soundtrack, and her most recent single with Preditah, “On My Mind” makes it clear she’s not slowing down. 

The alternative nerd in me awaits new music from Matador’s Car Seat Headrest. Their 2016 success, Teens of Denial—a sweeping Odyssey for the guitar-loving bedroom-dwellers of the 2010s—yielded “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” which is still lodged in my head.

I’m also pining for Republic’s James Bay, who’s been using his socials to tease new music. “This year has been about trying to exceed my own expectations, push my own boundaries,” he wrote. “I’m aiming for what’s just out of reach, wading into the darker water.” Consider me tantalized.

The moral of this story is that I’m thankful for the barrage of crap brought to us by the access-to-everything model of the digital age, if only because the good stuff shines brighter and is more likely to get the recognition it deserves. With the world at every fan’s fingertips, an artist’s heart and transparency have never been more essential.

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